16 April, 2019
It was in the late 1950s that Chomsky proposed that the human brain possesses an innate, pre-programmed knowledge enabling it to learn and develop language; a groundbreaking and now commonly accepted theory whose implications have set the agenda for new research efforts in diverse fields of science and the humanities.
In their eleventh edition, the BBVA Foundation’s Frontiers of Knowledge Awards, distinguishing world-class scientific research and cultural creation, have incorporated the new category of Humanities and Social Sciences, to alternate annually between the two domains. This first award is devoted to the humanities.
Chomsky, says the committee, set the study of the human mind “on a new and productive path encompassing theoretical linguistics, psycholinguistics, cognitive science, the philosophies of language and mind, and cognitive psychology.”
Through his view of language as something the human mind is innately able to produce by calling on predefined structures, Chomsky made “humanity’s most distinctive cognitive product understandable from both a scientific and humanistic point of view,” the citation continues. Language thus becomes not just an instrument of communication, but a cognitive-biological object born out of the human mind, and therefore providing a window onto the workings of the human brain.
“For centuries language was considered a strictly social phenomenon,” explains Ignacio Bosque, the Professor of Spanish at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid and member of the Real Academia Española who nominated Chomsky for the Frontiers of Knowledge Award. “Chomsky’s fundamental insight was to develop a theory of language as being built into the human cognitive system, an approach that allows it to be studied as part of the natural world.” Although Chomskyan theory posits a general, abstract model of the structure of human languages, this model that has informed detailed studies of the formal properties of many individual languages, fueling the rise of the new comparative linguistics and laying the foundations for a scientific understanding of language learning and development.
Chomsky is currently an emeritus professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and laureate professor at the University of Arizona. His first book, Syntactic Structures, published in 1957 when he was just 29 years old, is a technical treatise on linguistics based on the lecture notes he had prepared for his students. It is here that Chomsky introduces the concept of generative grammar: the idea that the grammatical rules of all languages spring from a universal grammar that is innate to the human brain.
“The linguistic universals Chomsky studied are formal in nature,” Professor Bosque continues. “Words are grouped in certain ways into segments nested within other, larger ones. Although human languages differ enormously, on the surface at least, the relationships between these segments are constant, and are also sensitive to their internal constitution.”
These postulates clashed full-on with the accepted wisdom of the time, and were initially rejected by the linguistic establishment. Chomsky, however, revealed the holes in the fabric through examples like his famous sentence “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously,” a construction we recognize as grammatically correct even though it makes no sense. For Chomsky, this proved that the ability to recognize that a sentence is formally correct draws on the principles of an innate, universal grammar.
Despite the initial skepticism, this first publication and those that followed would mark a programmatic shift in the study of language, moving it into the terrains of psychology and biology. Chomsky’s books of the 1960s and 1970s – and subsequent reeditions – are among the most highly cited in the humanities, and viewed as the wellspring of such brand new disciplines as psycholinguistics. “Numerous studies on the acquisition of first and second languages would never have been possible without Chomsky’s ideas as their starting point,” insists Bosque, “and many of the questions they pose could never have been formulated. We could go as far as to say that the very idea of creativity has had to be radically revised in the light of Chomsky’s work.”
How to explain the rapid acquisition of language
One problem for which Chomsky’s theory provides a better fit than any other is the speed with which language is acquired. Between the ages of two and eight, children are reckoned to learn one new term every waking hour. In the first half of the 20th century, behaviorist theory explained this learning curve as a process of trial and error in which children acquire their mother tongue by repeating what they hear and correcting their mistakes. But Chomsky thought differently. For him, a mere stimulus-response could not account for children’s ability to come up with entirely new sentences. The capacity to produce an infinite number of structures – sentences – out of a finite number of elements – words – implies that the human brain comes prewired with the rules of universal grammar that underlie each language, so the learning process is not confined to a child repeating what is said by other speakers.
“The fact that any speaker can construct expressions that have never been uttered, and understand others they have never heard cannot be a mere product of imitation,” says Bosque. “We humans possess a language faculty that rests on linguistic principles of considerable complexity, a kind of template into which any human language fits. And Chomsky has studied the structure of this template in painstaking detail for more than seventy years.”
Chomsky has set out his linguistic postulates and theories on the relationship between language and brain function – what the committee calls his scientific program – in some of the all-time highest cited publications in the humanities area; among them, Aspects of a Theory of Syntax (1965), Lectures on Government and Binding (1981) and The Minimalist Program (1992).
“Some wonder why Chomsky has focused on humans’ cognitive abilities rather than the set of social and cultural factors that govern their existence. I would argue that it is precisely this choice that evidences the sheer originality of his thought and the extraordinary reach of his contributions,” concludes Ignacio Bosque.